Drought, God and Human Enterprise

Emerald beetle on dry ground

Drought over much of America has parched the soil

The problem Christians face in consideration of natural disasters such as drought, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes and fires is that Christianity itself seems conflicted about so-called “acts of God.”

Even insurance companies bent on actuarial accuracy have been known to use the phrase “act of God” to describe weather and other natural phenomena gone out of control.

The current challenge over much of North America is drought. It appears that among all dangerous results of climactic conditions, drought may be the most pernicious of all when it comes to the ability of the human race to address its impact on agriculture and other enterprise.

We take for granted that it will rain sooner or later. But in an economy teetering from the effects of human foul play and political stupidity, a natural disaster such as drought can prove to be a tipping point. The Depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl proved that point. We apparently have not learned much from the experience. Industrialized farming, while something of a miraculous invention, still cannot make up for the fact of no rain. Crops still need water, and irrigation cannot currently compensate for millions of acres of parched corn and beans.

So where is God in all this? Surely there are plenty of farmers and perhaps a few corn and bean speculators praying for rain so that some sort of crop emerges from the summer of 2012. Yet there may be just as many commodity speculators praying against rain so that their margins or profits or product estimates will prove true so that they can somehow corner the market and get rich as royal thieves.

Does God listen to their prayers as well? Does God answer prayers for wealth, especially ill-begotten wealth that would be the result of human suffering?

If we take the world at face value we might surmise that God does answer the prayers of the evil as well as the good. With wealth rising to the top of American society at previously unseen rates, one thinks of Bible passages such as these: “Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying, “‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?” Habakkuk 2:5-7.

Well, woe is relative, and the rich sometimes don’t seem to feel it, or much of anything with regards to other human beings. They even suppose to feel favored by God.

While much of middle-class America has been struggling along since the economy ratcheted up to a crash under the watch of George W. Bush, the wealthy largely rebounded from stock market losses and are doing just fine, thank you. So where is God’s justice in these circumstances?

It has always been that way. And it will always be that way. Achieving justice in this world often requires much effort and human enterprise, for evil in this world is industrious, greedy and pathologically uncaring. That certainly does not mean that all wealthy people are evil. But it does mean that those who are can do great harm.

But nature can be just as capricious. The world is designed, if you want to call it that, to operate on random forces that include natural disasters and even evolutionary twists of fate. So the drought of 2012 is neither unimaginable to God, or unexpected. Some people automatically throw stones at the nation for its supposed sins, accusing America of “tolerating” a list of ostensibly evil activities ranging from abortion to homosexuality, promiscuity to lack of church attendance. Yet it’s funny how seldom those same prophets seem to admonish America for its inequality in wealth, its obsession with violence and its disenfranchisement of the needy and poor. Those themes are much more prevalent in the Bible, yet the crowd that likes to say that God is punishing America for its sins almost always ignores the sins of power. The reason? Too often the supposed prophets are in political alliance with the rich and powerful, thus compromising their ability to speak for God.

It seems that same bible-thumping crowd likes to deny the random fact of evolution, preferring to insist that God is in control of every moment and event in time, like some OCD control freak of a deity. But that worldview does not square with the reality of free will in the world, or the fact that human beings are free to choose in belief in God and Christ. God may indeed be “in control,” but we make our own choices about what elements of God’s universe we seek to embrace, evil or good.

So we persist in a dysfunctional relationship with the influence of God in the world, throwing faith at the idea that it will someday rain while denying that it might be our own, human activities that could be contributing to the current drought.

Indeed, global climate change is the product of human beings burning fossil fuels at alarming rates. Yet the people who favor a nation bowing down to the interests of the very wealthy, and industrialists to boot, insist that holding polluters accountable will harm our economy. How ironic. It’s almost like they can’t see the forest for the trees. Hence the organic symbolism is doubly lost.

That is so narrow-minded as to deny the very existence of God, who the Bible says favors the actions of the just and prudent among us.

So these are the lessons of Drought, God and Human Enterprise. Without recognizing the consequences of our own behavior, God cannot (and will not) help us solve any of the problems we face, be they natural or manmade disasters. Our preparedness and humility in the face of such circumstances may help us attain the collaboration and response necessary to prevent the inevitable natural disaster from becoming fatal to ourselves. If you read the Bible carefully, that is most of what God has done for the human race through great leaders.

God despises however, those who act in His name for gain in personal wealth and power, especially through extortion, calculated speculation and manipulation of people through deceptive words. One cannot help but realize that an evil game is being played by people who deny the massive evidence from science that global warming is real, and that natural disasters, including drought, may be worsened by our own aggressive folly. That is true also of pollution by pesticides, heavy metals, atmospheric degradation and even genetically modified crops and animals. Simply put: We’re messing around for profit and in the process may be losing our grip, and our souls.

On Praying for Colorado

I am a religious person who prays every day. I believe those prayers have been answered in ways that exceed the ability to comprehend or imagine how it happened.

Having been the beneficiary of answers to my prayers, and to those of others praying for me and us (wife and family) it makes spiritual sense to return the cosmic favor and pray for others as well. Now people are asking for prayers for Colorado.

And I will pray for the people whose lives are being turned upside down and burned to rubble as wildfires consume acres and acres of Colorado forest. As recently as November 2011 I walked in those hills near Colorado Springs. Hiked up in the cool morning air for a look around, and saw rings of snow lacing the mountaintops, much higher than where I stood.

The red rocks of Colorado crunched underfoot. Tiny stubborn oak trees with miniature leaves clung to the crumbling ground. Colorado seems to be eroding by the inch in fact. The hot sun beats down all summer, tanning the rocks themselves perhaps, and giving the skin of Colorado visitors and residents that ruddy feel of mountain peoples. It is a unique place.

People have turned Colorado into an environmental plaything. Miles of hiking trails run up into the hillsides above Colorado Springs, home to an Olympic training center and epicenter for the Colorado good life. To the immediate west the Rockies jut higher and higher into the sky, to 14,000 feet in places. Trees cease being able to exist above certain elevations. The gray and red rocks of real mountains stand stubborn against the sky, thrown up by tectonic forces deep within the earth. The entire ridge of the Rockies runs from the southern United States far into the Canadian wilderness. People settle in towns all along the Continental Divide. Other vacation there, drafting on the mountain air and dipping toes into cool lakes or raging meltwater rivers.

The mountains are so profound it is almost hard to recall the profusion of forests in the Rockies when you go back home. That is, unless your home itself is nestled in the Colorado forests, built on a mountainside or snuggled in a canyon among the red rocks.

It is easy to forget that Colorado forests like forests all around the world actually depend on occasional fires to clear the way for new growth. It has been that way for millions of years. At least, that’s what scientists tell us.

With Colorado’s well-known conservative political and religious bent there are probably plenty of people living there who don’t believe that Colorado and its ecosystem are millions of years old. They probably don’t accept that the mountains were pushed up by movement of whole continents across the face of the earth.

The conservative worldview based on a literal interpretation of the Bible demands that people deny these facts. And that is truth for approximately 50% of the population in America, who deny basic geological facts and contend that the accompanying theory of evolution that converge with earth’s geophysical history are just fairy tales. People who deny evolution in favor of the creationist worldview believe that nature is the direct work of God’s hand, and God’s hand only. Those mountains? Created by God in an instant 10,000 years ago. Those forests…while changing and dying and growing anew over the last 10 millennia are still no sign that forests in general are part of a greater cycle of evolutionary development. Forests are forests. The words are clear, just as human beings were thrown together from dust at the dawn of time.

So the prayers being thrown to Colorado do meet the conservative worldview of creationism, where praying to God might somehow earn the mercy and favor of the Almighty and stop the fires. But tell that to the people whose homes have already been consumed. And tell that to those whose homes and all their belongings might still be burnt to a crisp. Is this punishment for some sort of spiritual crime on the part of Coloradans?

Some earthcentric “pagans” might leap to that argument on grounds that human abuses to the land have brought down the wrath of Mother Earth. That’s the other extreme of the deist-driven universe. But be cautious; begging mercy and exacting vengeance for one cause or another are not so very far apart.

That leads us to the natural explanation for the Colorado wildfires, for fires will always burn away forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California and yes, even New York state and southern Florida. On a vacation trip to Glacier National Park I witnessed hundreds of acres of forests burning away along a ridge east of the park. Firefighters dumped water and flame retardants on the runaway fire every day. But it burned out when it was damned good and ready, not when humans put it out. On the other side of the park and entire mountainside bore stubble across its face from a grand fire 30 years before. These things happen. Smokey the Bear once tried to prevent people from starting forest fires, but he doesn’t control the lightning that starts the bulk of natural conflagrations.

Fire has been part of the earth since its inception. Hot lava forms the very guts of our planet, erupting at times in fury that once was credited to the power of the Gods. When are we going to get that through our heads, that both the heaven of creation and its accompanying hell are right here on earth? The symbol of yin and yang seems to get that idea more clearly than the Christian notion of good and evil. Some forces don’t like the names we give them. But they still exist.

And until we grasp that our prayers for or against the fires that form our planet are likely fruitless, we are not likely to grasp the real meaning of prayer, or its consequences and potential benefits. These are the real miracles. For the Bible itself tells us that the kingdom of God is alive in the things that we do. That when natural disasters strike it is the welcome hand of those who care that brings the favor of God alive in our world. So it is fine to pray for Colorado, but it is also important to pray that we can find ways to help those affected by the natural disaster, that our government officials will not turn a hardened heart toward those in need simply because they are tight with a dime, or stingy, or worse; possessed of a political worldview that somehow disparages those less fortunate, holds prejudice against the misfortunate, need or poor.

We’ve seen the consequences of forced negligence in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where delayed response and disorganized and (even) dismissive attitudes toward those affected can result in human and natural tragedy. We also know that it has been human activity that put cities like New Orleans at risk, where human activity has reduced coastline wetlands and put that city at even greater peril when hurricanes hit. Perhaps we even need to stop being stupid in certain circumstances, like building major structures on barrier islands, or on the face of flood plains, or throwing up junk houses in earthquake zones. Or, we simply accept that that’s just people being people.

Because it is often our selfish or sentimental interests that override the facts and blind us to the reality that it is human greed and stubborn belief that makes us think nature is supposed to be benign to our consumptive habits and acquisitive natures.

But let us be clear: These are the end games of the creationist worldview, which insists that human beings literally have dominion over the earth. If we buy that approach, then it makes no sense to engage in prayer during natural disasters. We’ve clearly either brought them upon ourselves or else God is a vengeful being who does not care about us. Better to take the liberal example of Jesus Christ, whose natural parables explain that we are engaged with creation as a living thing, that we owe it respect and appreciate its force as an expression of God’s almighty power. That just might include the ability to set things in motion through the results of geology and evolution that express the random nature of the universe, which also parallels free will. See, the natural world and our spiritual choices align much more closely than you might think. It really is a yin and yang thing.

So it is ours to make sense of the world, not for the world to make sense of us. The idea that prayer can somehow stave off the fires, blot out a hurricane, seal up the earth to prevent a quake, or prevent flooding, hail, drought, tornados, erosion and powerful storms at sea is overreaching.

Indeed the Bible speaks of Christ committing miracles that silenced the wind and settled the sea, but we must understand that those metaphysical parables are designed to help us comprehend that the peace that passes all understanding is ours to engage before the tragedy happens, not during or after. That’s real faith, for it calls us to accept that tragedies will strike, and that we must be prepared to extend love or even beg help from our fellow human beings in a world that is imperfect, random and sometimes cruel. God wants us to help each other.

For we are bound to a cycle of life and death that unfortunately does not guarantee that any one of us gets out alive, or spares our houses, keeps green our grass or even saves the family dog from a passing car. Life is painful, real and fiery at times. Our prayers need to be focused on how we can help each other get through, because God did not design the world to operate in a way that bends to our prayers. We must bend and aim our prayers to the eternal conscience of human need and conscious grace. We must ourselves be the grace appreciated that God extends to us in giving us life. This is the favor we must return to God, through prayer and other means, if we hope at all to be a reflection of God’s image. It is a wonderful, perilous creation we live in whether you believe the earth is a mere 10,000 years old, or 10,000 x 10,000 years old. None of us is old enough to know, nor will we ever be. So let’s pray for each other, that somehow we really can make our world a better place.